Communication Making Church Matter

Stop Trying to Make People Go To Church

July 11, 2012

A couple of weeks ago I posted a blog about a friend of mine who felt like he was languishing in his parish: it was boring and bad and the pastor was sort of grumpy. He’s searched for another parish, but with no success.

And then he ran across this incredibly vibrant and joyous church that he started attending instead. He found himself looking forward to church each week, instead of dreading it.  He came to really value the energy and spirit it gave him. He really felt “fed” by the message. He started meeting young people his own age who share his values, he was invited to join a small group and found himself growing in his faith for the first time in a long time. Of course his new church isn’t Catholic.

When I posted this piece, I received a lot of comments, a few of which we shared. Interestingly, not everyone was sympathetic to the young man’s position. I am. Even more so, after my conversation with him last Sunday.

He was home visiting family and came to Mass.  Afterwards we talked.  It seems he had been feeling a twinge of Catholic guilt for skipping Mass, so the previous Sunday he finally went back to his parish. It was just as boring and bad as ever, but then it got worse, far worse. This is a true story.

At the homily time, the pastor let everyone know how concerned and angry he is with the continuing decline in attendance. So concerned is he, in fact, that he has formed a “secret committee” whose job it will be to start tracking attendance. No one will know who is on the committee, that way they can surreptitiously keep record of who is there and who is not each week. Repeat offenders will be called out with a letter of reprimand from the pastor himself. And if they do not mend their ways, they will be removed from the parish registry and unwelcome to return.

Wow. Really?

That is so counterproductive, so wrong, so against everything Jesus taught us about being church, I wouldn’t even know where to begin unpacking it. But it does raise a wider question: why do so many pastors and parish leaders try to make people go to church? Why don’t they do their job and make church better?

I told my friend to stay away from the place.

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  1. Fr. White, thanks for sharing.

    I’m involved with Catholic evangelization, and that is one of the big obstacles we face – that if I reach out to someone and invite them to my church – will they be welcomed? Unfortunately in my church they would probably not… Though I’m trying to make a difference…

    There is also a noticeable lack of 1 really important fruit of the Holy Spirit- JOY. Not giddy emotions, but genuine joy that derives from the truth of having a relationship with Jesus.

    1. To clarify, I don’t think it is any one person’s fault at my parish. We have good people in leadership and ministry. However, I think it is a lukewarm cultural Catholicism that keeps our Church from really being vibrant.

  2. I agree that the pastors/parish leaders have some responsibility, but I also think we are responsible for our own church “experience.” This could mean anything from participating fully in the mass (sing!) to finding a parish that’s alive and growing. I sat in the pews of a dying church for months, because of its convenient location! I don’t need to be entertained, but I do need to feel as though the parishioners and the pastor are happy to be in the presence of God!

  3. What suits one community will not necessarily work in another, but I do think we need to try and find what works.
    A parish with a young, educated, affluent and professional population will no doubt have the financial and personal resources to create a vibrant community, but a parish that is mostly middle class and elderly, conservative and more traditional will simply not be able to create such a vibrant community, but it will at least with some creative imagination and willingness to ask the right questions and evaluate the state of preaching, music, social action, sense of belonging, etc. and make some effort to approximate a good community in any way it can. I fear that “business as usual” is the philosophy of most parishes with a little tinkering here and there but with no real analysis and response to declining attendance.

  4. Wow. What a story. But much of it is, sadly, far too familiar.

    I’d like to recommend a new book that looks at why spiritually hungry Catholics often leave, and how to address the problem at the roots: _Making Intentional Disciples: The Path to Knowing and Following Jesus_, by Sherry Weddell, co-founder of the the Catherine of Siena Institute ( The whole pastoral staff of my parish is now reading it together.

    There are lots of symptoms, but at root is our failure to make disciples of the baptized. In our increasingly secularized and hostile culture, the old methods of cultural transmission of the faith simply don’t work any more in the vast majority of cases. But there are many reasons for hope, and Weddell outlines some very practical steps that can be taken in any ordinary parish to help turn things around.

    Check it out….

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